Alex Katz’s New Paintings in Venice Celebrate Grass, Water, and Clothes

At 96, Alex Katz is showing new paintings of three highly different kinds in an exhibition that coincides with the Venice Biennale. “Claire, Grass and Water” at the Fondazione Giorgio Cini features 26 works made between 2021 and 2022, some of them in modes Katz hasn’t attempted before and some with a sense of scale bigger than he has worked with in his more than seven decades as a painter.

Thirteen works inspired by midcentury American fashion designer Claire McCardell channel the colorful figurative style for which Katz is best-known, but nine paintings of rippling ocean surfaces and four of grass are landscapes of a sort that is far less familiar.

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Before the opening of his show—which was curated by Luca Massimo Barbero, director of the Institute of Art History of the Fondazione Giorgio Cini, and runs through September 29—ARTnews spoke with Katz about his latest developments.

What made you want to come here to Venice? Of all the places you’ve been…

I came to Venice for five minutes because I want to see the show. There are all kinds of problematics. The paintings are new to the audience, and I don’t know whether I’m ahead of the audience or not. I don’t know whether they’ll look good either. I have one room with paintings of water. That looks great, and I didn’t worry about that. The next room is grass. I wouldn’t mind it being dramatized with just one 10-by-20-foot painting. But [curator Luca Massimo Barbero] hung it with four paintings. There are three 10-by-20s and one 10-by-10. There is a terracotta floor I had a lot of anxiety about. The Claire McCardell paintings I knew would look good. I wouldn’t have come over if it was just those.

What concerned you about the terracotta floor?

The color. The color fought a little bit with a big yellow painting. They lit it low because of the floor. I wanted it to be more like sunlight, so I said, “Put a little more light on it.” I haven’t seen it yet. But, basically, I’m very pleased with the show. And the couple of people who have seen it seem to get it. So I think it’ll be successful for me.

A wide painting of a yellow surface with green streaks of grass at the bottom.
Photo: Charles Duprat/©Alex Katz/Adagp, Paris, 2024/Courtesy Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac

The biggest paintings are among the biggest you’ve ever made. What made you want to work at that scale?

The idea of the landscape paintings was to make paintings that wrap around you like you are in the landscape, rather than looking at a landscape from a distance through holes in the wall. I felt I had to have that much size to get the effect I wanted. And they really worked out.

Are there landscape painters that achieve the effect you had in mind?

Bonnard did one that’s in the Phillips Collection. It really opens up. The idea was that landscape was going away from Picasso and Matisse, into an area where they didn’t work. They both worked with solid forms in the middle of the canvas—it’s sculptural. Mine are not like sculpture. They relate a little bit to Monet.

Your water paintings were based on photographs you took in Coney Island.

Yeah, I went to Coney Island in the winter and took pictures for the water paintings. Water has weight, motion, and transparency. When you try to paint all of those, you’re in open area. Winslow Homer painted water, but it was all surface—it never got to those qualities.

A black and white painting of an ocean surface.
Alex Katz, Ocean 8, 2022. Photo: Charles Duprat/©Alex Katz/Adagp, Paris, 2024/Courtesy Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac

Does the water in Venice look different than the water in Coney Island to you?

I’m working with a very generalized effect. But the water here in the Mediterranean is different than New York. They have a blue here that isn’t anywhere else. But I’m not involved with that at all—mine are all black and white.

In an interview in the catalog for your show you called Albert Pinkham Ryder’s Moonlight Marine (1870–1890) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as “one of the best that America every produced.” What do you like about it?

I think Albert Pinkham Ryder is one of the best American painters ever, very high-class. The way he consolidates form reminds me of Giotto. Of the American painters, I think Pollock and Ryder are two who were really extraordinary. Moonlight Marine has the mood of Romanticism and a generalization of form. It has motion and romance, which I’m not interested in, particularly, but they’re there. The forms are so concrete, without being stiff.

You said you already knew the Claire McCardell paintings would look good here…

Claire McCardell was an extraordinary person who trained herself as a high-end designer of clothes. When the war came, French designers couldn’t get clothes [to America] and she stepped into the vacuum. She had the brilliant idea of doing high fashion for everybody. She made clothing that a woman could wear at a welding job and then come home to cook pancakes, in the same outfit. She was rolling around in my subconscious all these years, and then somehow the time was right and it occurred to me to try [to make paintings related to her].

A painting with three profile views of a female figure, one in a red swimsuit, another in blue, and one in a black dress.
Alex Katz, Claire McCardell 14, 2022. Photo: Charles Duprat/©Alex Katz/Adagp, Paris, 2024/Courtesy Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac

Those works are quite different than the grass and water paintings. What connects them for you?

I don’t paint in a style. I don’t make parameters, so I can move anywhere I want. In modern art there are rules about what you can and can’t do. That seems very restrictive to me. Anything’s open, and you can just follow it. You might be looking at the Egyptian sculpture one day as an influence and a comic book or TV ads the next day.

What are you painting now? Are you working on anything new?

I had this idea, after the landscapes, that I wanted to paint an afterimage. It started with Matisse’s Red Studio (1911), which is an afterimage—it’s like when you’re in the summer and it’s green outside, and you walk through the door and get a flash of red. It’s a visual phenomenon that is not often repeated, but most people should have had it once in their life. I had the idea that I wanted to paint it more concrete than Matisse, so I did this big painting and it was a success. It looks like a hokey 1914 semi-abstract thing. American, a little stiff—but the effect was successful. I wanted to do a series so I made four or five medium-size ones and then I did a 9-by-12. They were very successful, so that’s it. And right now I’m lost. I don’t know what I’m going to do next.

That seems like a good place to be.

I don’t know, I haven’t been there. I’ve always had something else come up.

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